Doomed Romance in Films: From ‘Brief Encounter’ to ‘In The Mood For Love’

Top: In The Mood For Love (2000). Bottom Left: Brief Encounter (1945). Bottom Right: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

The short flings. The adventurous rendezvous of couples entranced with an inescapable desire for romance—but with a twist. Both sides are married, they have signed themselves into society’s most powerful and binding agreement of a monogamous relationship. However, there is a mighty and persuasive dilemma; their love for each other is as true as everything else in the world. But stemming from intense short-term passion and desire, is it enough to leave their happy normal lives with their spouses behind? Indeed, despite their dubious morals filmmakers throughout the years have dabbled on the nature of relationships between adulterous couples—often in ways that can make the audience root for them despite knowing they are ‘wrong’. From David Lean’s romantic depiction of an affair in Brief Encounter (1945), Wong Kar-Wai’s ephemeral love story in In The Mood For Love (2000), and Alain Resnais’ abstract representation of past trauma in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). These romance films bloom with love and yet the reality of real-life always stands in the way as an unhappy ending is almost expected. 

Brief Encounter: Decent People Who Got Decent Lives

Brief Encounter (1945) Directed by David Lean and Written by Noel Coward.

The decision to seemingly set David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1936 stage play Still Life in the pre-war era leading up to World War II resulted in Brief Encounter to emanate a certain timeless feeling. This is, of course, despite being developed during the war and releasing in 1945. Coward, being heavily involved in writing the film, could have easily willed the film to have the war as the backdrop but the subversive nature of the film and the lack of any external conflict other than internal ones the character struggle with meant the film is in some ways universal, spanning cultures despite its heavy British emphasis.

As Barry Davis, an expert to Noel Coward’s works put it, the normal housewife Laura (Celia Johnson) and Doctor Alec (Trevor Howard) are what the British would call “decent people who got decent lives, comfortable lives, and emotional commitments”. Laura and Alec have both got their spouses and children waiting at home yet a chance encounter at a train station plunged them into an acute inclination to love one another.

This emphasis on normalcy is strengthened again in the film through the depiction of a routine to their lives; Laura always visit Milford at Thursdays to shop, then go to a bookstore, on to the ‘pictures’ (this is what they used to refer to film theaters at the time), and finally to Milford Junction where the train station lies to go home again. This routine was then ‘intruded’ by Alec after their first meet-cute when Alec romantically removed dust and grit from Laura’s eyes. This Thursday routine was transformed into Laura picking up Alec in front of his hospital, then going to a restaurant to have lunch together, on to the pictures, and finally back to the train station where they have one final chat at the station’s cafe before parting ways until the oncoming week. After they confessed their respective feelings to one another this routine was further disturbed with detours ranging from a boat ride in the local lake, an excursion to the countryside, and dining at a fancy restaurant.

Alas, the disruption to normalcy and their respective marriage would not, and perhaps could not last. Various ‘warnings’ were given at the start. After their first meeting together and as Laura contemplated this strange emotion she felt with Alec and went home, she found her son had been grazed by a car but fortunately came out with only a few scratches. This accident was interpreted by her as a punishment, a sinister warning and a sudden reminder to home and responsibility. And as she became worryingly adept at creating lies to trick her seemingly gentle husband the enormous guilt on her psyche was slowly piling up.

Laura and Alec after a boat excursion in the local lake.

Despite being what Alan Cumming called a “propaganda film to keep people in their place”, Brief Encounter never truly trivialized the love and passion in the extramarital affair the two had. For most of the film, it almost encourages it as their feelings were depicted as being an inevitability caused by their perfect chemistry with one another—the type of feeling that would hurt a person more to keep silent about than to, even if morally astray, let loose.

But the inevitability of them falling in love with one another is also the inevitability of their eventual separation. Showing the first scene of the film to be also that of the final one and have the rest of the film building up and add meaning to that first scene led me to believe the predestined nature of their short but powerful relationship. Despite their short fling being their own choice, there was an overwhelming lack of agency within them to truly take the next step. After all, abandoning a short fling and going home to your respective partner is the ‘proper’ thing to do.

In The Mood For Love: Fleeting Yet Everlasting

Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love

It would not be wrong to call Wong Kar-Wai’s deeply poignant In The Mood For Love (2000) the Brief Encounter of the 21st century, despite the film being set in the past. However, there is another layer that Wong Kar-Wai added into the film that set it apart from Brief Encounter. That is, in contrary to the timelessness of Brief Encounter, Wong Kar-Wai deliberately stressed the specificness of both the location and time period the film was set in. Wong Kar-Wai himself said that the film is not about the affair itself but rather the time period, in this case, Hong Kong in the 1960s, and how the people in that era treat this affair over the years. 

But a routine similar to the one shown in Brief Encounter also exists. This time the common meeting place between Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) are in the staircase of their apartment building where they often brush shoulders and the noodle stall nearby. This constant repetition of a limited set of locations was also a conscious decision in Wong Kar-Wai’s part. It was mostly a logistical one as panning the camera upwards in the outdoor shots would reveal the high-rise buildings that would ruin the illusion of the time period. At the same time, the film’s close-to-the-ground shots of rustic alleyways also give the sense of a very local, tightly-knit community where everyone knows each other. This is again Wong Kar-Wai’s way of illustrating the Shanghainese-speaking Chinese community in Hong Kong at the time, which is also Wong Kar-Wai’s background. 

In contrast to Brief Encounter‘s love affair that stemmed from pure unadulterated passion, the relationship between Chow and Mrs. Chan almost seems like it came from a place of necessity—they are both lonely after they discover their respective partners are having an affair with one another behind their backs. This longing for companionship after their partners’ extended excursions led them to one another. Their eventual relationship seemed like it did not truly come from actual chemistry with one another as the focus of their conversations is often related to their cheating partners rather than a heart-to-heart between themselves.

These meetings and conversations then led to Chow and Mrs. Chan each roleplaying as their respective partners and trying to imagine what they would act like when they are committing their adulterous debaucheries. However, Wong Kar-Wai specifically instructed Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung to play as themselves; that is as Chow and Mrs. Chan, rather than have them try to do an impression of their wife and husband. This was to add another layer to the story—that of those two have a secret dark side that they need to release and perhaps they could have been the ones who cheated first before their partners did. The ambiguity of their morals was also supported by not ever showing the faces of Chow’s wife and Mrs. Chan’s husband to depict the interchangeable nature of a love affair in monogamous relationships.

Unfortunately, the fate of Chow and Mrs. Chan did not end that differently from Alec and Laura. Their fall out are both triggered through the separation of physical interaction, both by way of literally moving to another country. While Alec and his family moved to South Africa, Chow chose to move to Singapore but this time his catalyst was Mrs. Chan’s indecisiveness in continuing their relationship. In the end, their romance was fleeting, shown through the warped sense of time Wong Kar-Wai portrayed in jump cuts and time skips. But the scars left deep within are etched for eternity.

Hiroshima Mon Amour: Trauma and Memory

Eji Okada and Emmanuelle Riva in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour

The genesis of the french new wave cinema brought Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour to the forefront. Emmanuelle Riva plays an actor who came to Hiroshima to play a part in a film about peace while Eji Okada plays a Japanese architect. And of course, they are both happily married to their respective partners. The film explored a rather more psychological and nuanced theme and it brought justification to the fact that both of the characters were never explicitly named. The love affair depicted here is almost abstract to the point where the fact that they were married perhaps did not matter that much in the end. What mattered was their past and trauma that led them here. 

Hiroshima Mon Amour is an anti-war film as much as it is a romance. It specifically uses allegories between the nuclear disaster that befell Hiroshima and the two characters’ trauma of the past. It accentuates that retellings of trauma and tragedy of the past will always be looked at through a certain lens that devalues the true sufferings. After Riva’s character mentioned how she saw what happened in Hiroshima through newsreel and pictures, Okada’s character repeatedly replied “You saw nothing in Hiroshima”, implying that those things fail to show the true horror of what happened. Similarly, Riva’s character owns trauma of being ostracized by her home town after dating a German soldier was only shown to the audience through ambiguous flashbacks and to Okada’s character through vague retellings. 

Like In The Mood For Love, roleplaying is also used here to the effect of a coping mechanism for the characters. When Riva’s character was telling the story of her dead German lover and the ensuing aftermath, Okada’s character played the role of the dead German lover in their dialogue. But as I’ve mentioned, the retellings were ambiguous at best as her memories about the incident are slowly slipping away. All that remained were the emotions attached to those memories—the details were already disoriented. 

Riva’s Character: I began to forget you. I tremble at forgetting such love.

The film did not truly imply that they were meant to separate in the end. It hardly implied that this goes in the ‘doomed romance’ category I have eloquently explained so far. But I am still arguing that it does belong in the category for the theme explored in the film. The film is telling us that love as an emotion is as forgettable as a true tragedy like the Hiroshima bombing. We can say that we know what happened or experienced it firsthand, but they are all hallunications of the brain desparately trying to replicate the emotions we felt in our memories.

Riva’s character: The illusion, quite simply, is so perfect, that tourists weep. It’s easy to be cynical. But what else can a tourist possibly do, but weep?

The fleetingness of love is correlated to an actual tragedy like the Hiroshima bombing because like how tourist attractions surrounding the tragedy were already built in such a short time after what happened, Our memories of past love are only near-perfect replications of what we felt at the time and not the actual thing. As much as how the two characters in the film both cheated on their respective partners because their brains were only tricking themselves to think they are still in a happy marriage, their future potential relationship can only seem to be momentary and transient.

Okada’s Character: In a few years when I have forgotten you, and other adventures like this one will happen to me from sheer force of habit…I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this story as the horror of forgetting.

Finally, I simply wanted to say that dissecting Hiroshima Mon Amour in general is quite a massive undertaking and this essay will certainly not be the last of what I have to say about the film.

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